In 1782 a young man called Charles Simeon became the minister of Holy Trinity Church in the centre of Cambridge. He was only twenty-three years old, and he served as the minister there for fifty-four years. For most of that time he was despised, not only by the people of Cambridge but also by his own congregation. His appointment was so unpopular that many of the church members boycotted the services and locked the pews to prevent others from sitting in them. Students began to attend, so Simeon bought chairs for them to sit on, but the other leaders of the church threw the chairs out, forcing the students and others to stand. This opposition continued for years but Simeon kept proclaiming the gospel. Over the years the gospel was effective. When he died, the grateful congregation placed an epitaph in the building that said this:
In Memory of the Rev. Charles Simeon, M.A., Senior Fellow of King's College and fifty-four years vicar of this parish; who, whether as the ground of his own hopes, or as the subject of all his ministrations, determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2v2).
What does good Christian leadership look like? What makes a good Christian leader and who gets to decide? How should we respond to good Christian leadership? Those are some of the questions and ideas we come to in 1 Corinthians 4.
So we're back in 1 Corinthians, re-starting a series we began last year called '1 Corinthians – Fixing a Broken Church'. Last year we covered the first three chapters so why not read those this afternoon, or before next Sunday? All the sermons from last year are on our website, and why not check out our recommended book for the series, 'True Spirituality' by Vaughan Roberts. It covers all of 1 Corinthians. You can get it through our online bookstall, linked off the home page of our website and you can flick through a sample copy in the foyer. On top of all that our home groups are following this 1 Corinthians series, starting this week, so there are lots of ways to stuck into this letter.
This time last year Dan told us three things to know about Corinth. It was a city of great wealth and prosperity, it was a place rife with sexual pleasure-seeking, and lastly it was a place of self-promotion and PR. Flashy speakers would come to win a following for themselves, not with truth, but with show. Style over substance. We started to see how some of that culture of Corinth was causing trouble in the church. Like those old Carlsberg adverts, "If Corinth made churches, they'd probably be the worst churches in the world."
In chapter 1 we saw that the Corinthians were splitting into factions that idolised particular church leaders and looked down on others. They had teachers who were full of style and show – real primetime TV guys – so they doubted and looked down on Paul, whose message and appearance were a bit less impressive… less primetime TV and more graveyard shift on local radio.
So Paul wrote to correct their view of the gospel. Look at 1.18: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Paul also wrote to correct their view of godly leaders. Look at the start of chapter 2: When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Paul's job wasn't to win them over by impressing them. It was to preach Christ crucified, the only message with power to save. Paul went on to say that to question the wisdom of the gospel is to question the wisdom of God. The gospel is God's message. The apostles and other leaders are God's fellow-workers. The Corinthians are God's people, saved through a foolish message preached by unimpressive messengers, with no right to boast in anything but Jesus Christ. And now in chapter 4 Paul brings these lessons to bear on the Corinthians' attitudes to himself and the other leaders. He's going to expose their pride. He's going to show them what real, faithful Christian leadership looks like on the ground, and he's going to encourage and warn them to root out that pride and copy his example. I've tried to sum that up in one short idea, which is
Humbly respect and imitate faithful leaders
We'll come at this passage under three headings:
Christian leaders are Christ's servants, not yours (1-7)
Christian leaders follow Christ in suffering (8-13)
Christian leaders are to be imitated and obeyed (14-21)
1) Christian leaders are Christ's servants, not yours
Let's work through these verses one at a time to trace Paul's train of thought. Look at v1.
1So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.
In Ch 2 Paul described the gospel as God's secret wisdom. So he's saying, 'Bearing in mind everything I've written so far, this is how you should think about Christian leaders. Think of us as servants of Jesus and stewards entrusted with the good news about him.' Look at v2.
2Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
Stewards must steward well. They must prove to be responsible with the responsibility they've been given. But responsible to whom? Not to the church, v3:
3I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court;
It's not the approval of other people that matters. Christian leaders mustn't chase that idol of approval. Christian leadership is not about popularity or impressing people. In fact, even a leader's own self-assessment isn't what's important, v3:
indeed, I do not even judge myself.
Christian leaders aren't servants of their own judgment or their self-esteem or pride. They serve Christ. Paul's not being flippant though. Look at v4:
4My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.
There's no area of sin or failure in his life or ministry that Paul is aware of, but he's too close to make the final call on that. It's possible that a Christian leader could be blind or ignorant of his own failings. Only God can judge. V5:
5Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.
This is what Paul is driving at: recognise that Christian leaders are called to please God so don't stand in judgment over them as if the church was the ultimate authority in regard to ministerial success. God will judge at the appropriate time, with all the facts. And notice Paul's encouragement. At that time each will receive… his rebuke from God? No… his praise from God. 'Well done, good and faithful servant.' That's what every Christian, and especially a leader, is to chase after.
Paul's not saying that there's no place for self-examination or self-discipline in Christian leaders. He's not saying there's no place for church discipline and accountability structures for leaders. Paul is saying 'Stop being judgemental. Just be discerning.' The Corinthians should aim to be discerning about their leaders and a key element of that is knowing their place, and knowing the role of their leaders. Instead they were elevating certain leaders and rejecting others, like Paul. They were taking God's place as self-appointed judges. Let's read on, v6:
6Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, "Do not go beyond what is written." Then you will not take pride in one man over against another.
Paul applies all this to the leaders the Corinthians know, like himself and Apollos, because their tendency is to take pride in particular leaders, and that's not right. It's not their place to make judgements that lead to pride. The origins of that saying, "Do not go beyond what is written" are not known. It's not a biblical quotation. Maybe Paul means something like 'Don't get ideas above your station' or 'Don't get too big for your boots'. At any rate the application is to avoid taking pride in one leader over another, and they were guilty of that. Let's look on at V7:
7For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?
At the end of ch1 Paul said, "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." The issue is this: as helpless sinners who have been redeemed and forgiven by a crucified saviour, how can they engage in one-upmanship with one another? And how can they be arrogant and judgmental towards leaders who are stewards of the very gospel of grace that saved them? They have nothing to boast in but the cross, where they were given everything, even though they deserved nothing.
So do we act as self-appointed judges over our leaders? Do we, even subconsciously, rank leaders against one another, comparing and contrasting? Are we judgemental about leaders' styles or qualities? It's easy to be impressed brilliant communicators or dynamic leaders of growing churches or conference speakers or authors. In fact with the internet and the fashion for Christian conference s and the massive output of Christian books, it's probably easier than ever to be impressed by these leaders. But are they serving Christ and stewarding the gospel? That's the key question, the discerning question, for us. We want to be discerning, but we must avoid being judgemental, because that leads to pride. We must remember that Christian leaders are Christ's servants.
2) Christian leaders follow Christ in suffering
8Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings— and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! 9For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men.
Christians experience some blessing and joy in this life, as we wait for Jesus' return, but we also wait for future blessing that will only come at that time, when Jesus wraps up history and takes us to be with him, to reign with him. The Corinthians have got this a bit skewed. They're acting as though some of the blessings that await us in heaven are theirs now. They're acting like super-elite Christians, who are already reigning with Christ. It's as if other Christians, and the apostles themselves, have somehow been left behind by these elite who have gone on ahead. The Corinthians believed that the Christian life is a life of victory and prosperity and blessing and honour, free from suffering, free from struggle; the resurrection life, heaven on earth.
Paul says it's as if they're Generals at the head of the victory parade, but the apostles, are like the prisoners of war, trailing at the back, choking on the dust of the procession in front of them, defeated, obsolete, destined to be killed and forgotten, a laughing stock, in the world and in heaven.
10We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! 11To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12We work hard with our own hands. [The Greeks looked down on manual labourers.] When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.
The question the Corinthians couldn't get their heads around was, "How could leaders like these truly be appointed by God?!" But that was their mistake. Until Jesus' return, the Christian experience can't be separated from the cross. That's the only message a faithful leader can preach. That's the message with the power to save. And that's the pattern of experience all Christians should expect: weakness, suffering and scorn.
Peter wrote, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed." Jesus suffered on his way to glory, and that is the pattern, one of the hallmarks, for Christian leaders and all Christians.
On holiday recently I had the chance to watch some of the religious channels on Sky TV. I was really shocked. So much of it was the prosperity gospel. 'God is ready to bless you in amazing ways in the next six weeks if you'll only have faith and sow a seed. We have people standing by to receive your £300 seed donation and pray with you on the telephone. When I did this, God blessed me so richly, and now I've got a yacht and a jet and a mansion and he wants that for you too. Call now.' Unbelievable. So many bible verses lifted out of context and twisted. Guys getting to the end of their appeal for donations and then praying for the audience at home, "Lord God I told them what you told me to say." Some of these guys are in serious trouble when Jesus returns. They've got the style, the huge audiences; they're real celebrities. But they are not faithful leaders.
Don't be deceived by appearances. Ministry that looks successful may not be faithful. Ministry that is faithful may not look successful. Ministry that by God's grace seems to be both successful and faithful still won't be easy. No faithful Christian leader has an easy job. So pray for Christian leaders of all varieties, and support them. Encourage them to be faithful to the foolish message of the cross. Resolve now that you will do that in years to come even if the message of the cross becomes harder and harder to stand by as this country rejects Christianity more and more.
What about us? Are we more like Paul in this section, or more like the Corinthians? Are you honest enough about following Jesus that non-Christian friends, neighbours and colleagues know about your faith? Do we put our reputations on the line, ready to be counted as fools for believing, or have we retreated into comfortable privacy? This isn't just about Christian leaders – it's about all Christians, as Paul is about to make clear.
3) Christian leaders are to be imitated and obeyed
14I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. 15Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.
Having stung them with some harsh but necessary sarcasm, Paul now moves to encourage them. After all, he's writing these hard things out of love for them, not wanting to shame them. He writes as a disciplining father. They have many coaches, many tutors, many influences, but it's Paul who preached the gospel to them and set them their example of Christian living.
16Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love [that is, another guy who was converted under Paul's ministry], who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.
Children copy their parents. When my son was younger he would see me leaning against the kitchen worktop to eat some toast at breakfast and he would sidle up beside me and lean back against a cupboard to eat his. When I was a young boy I told my parents that my best friend's mum said she was going to learn to drive. My mum's response was that 'pigs might fly', a response I duly copied at my friend's house the next time I was there. Children copy their parents.
Paul is concerned that the Corinthians, his children in the gospel, should stop rejecting him and instead imitate his way of life. Why? Because he practises what he preaches. His example of humility, endurance, patience, kindness, prayerfulness, evangelism – all of it matches the message of the cross while he waits for the glory that will come when Jesus returns. As a loving father figure, Paul says, "Imitate me." But he also brings a warning, v18:
18Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. 20For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 21What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?
Paul is going to come to them, like a father coming home from a long absence. What's he going to find? If he finds little children boasting, rejecting his authority, running riot, causing divisions and trouble in the church, then he will come with discipline. He'll expose the empty rhetoric of these flashy leaders. Wise words don't matter. What matters is which message is the power of God for salvation. Has their eloquent rhetoric really brought anyone to a genuine saving knowledge of the crucified Christ?
Divisions and troubles in the church are deadly serious and Paul will not flinch to bring discipline where needed. We'll see something of that next week in ch 5 too. Christian leaders are to be imitated and obeyed. It is their responsibility to model the Christian life to others and encourage them towards maturity. And when there are people who claim to be followers of Jesus but who stubbornly will not submit to him, then discipline is called for.
So will you imitate your Christian leaders? Will you follow the example they give as followers of Jesus, in their behaviour, their discipline, their fight against sin, their marriages, their parenting, their evangelism and their commitment to Jesus? And will you respond humbly to correction, knowing that it proves their love for you? Will you support them in discipline, when that is necessary?
Will you humbly respect and imitate faithful leaders? They are Christ's servants, not yours. They follow Christ in suffering. And they're to be imitated and obeyed.